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The Write Start

First-time novelist David Amsden talks to New York authors about how they got started.


Illustrations by Lars Leetaru.

Gary Shteyngart
The Russian Debutante’s Handbook

I started writing The Russian Debutante’s Handbook in 1994, when I was a senior at Oberlin. I worked like a dog, writing 150 pages while doing a senior thesis. Then I moved to New York and started working as a paralegal. My parents had plunked down $100,000 for my liberal-arts education and wanted me to be a lawyer or something professional, so I took the job. It was awful—frankly, I could care less about the legal process. I was living in this studio that faced a giant air shaft on the Upper West Side—in this stuffy asinine building I despised—and I’d get home feeling exhausted and oppressed, but also thinking, The hell with this, I’m gonna show them! I wrote about 200 pages, mainly at night—it was a kamikaze mission of sorts. Then I almost had a breakdown and went to Spain for a few months. It was funny: I had 24 hours a day to work on the book and got nothing done. I came back to New York, lived on the Lower East Side—I was part of that crowd with the stupid hipster clothes—and worked a string of low-pressure nonprofit jobs and finished—seven years’ work total. How it got published is probably not the norm: I was applying to M.F.A. programs, to help get some structure to the book, and was choosing between Cornell and Hunter. I figured, Okay, you gotta go to Cornell, but I knew Chang-rae Lee taught at Hunter, and he’s one of my favorites. So I wrote him, and he asked for the book, then sent it to his editor at Riverhead, who called me a week later wanting to buy it. That was crazy and has changed everything. But looking back, I see I work much better under pressure. Those early times were the glory years. Now that I don’t have to worry so much, I find I work at a much more glacial pace. I should probably go out and work for some accountant.

Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections; How to Be Alone: Essays

I was 16 when I first saw New York. I spent a long, perfect August afternoon here with a cousin I had a crush on, and by the end of the day I was thinking, This is the place for me. When I started out as a writer, though, a few years later, I was afraid I’d get eaten up if I moved to New York and be demoralized by the competition and spend all my time earning money. So this is still the advice I give to young writers: Go to, like, northeastern Ohio, and write your first book. Go someplace cheap, and move to New York later.

I went to Somerville, Massachusetts. I’d gotten the idea for my first novel [The Twenty-Seventh City] when I was about halfway through college. After graduation, I studied for a year in Germany and married my college girlfriend. The rent on our first Somerville apartment was $300. I found a job at the seismology lab at Harvard and worked twenty hours there every weekend. The other five days a week I wrote fiction. It took my wife and me about four years to get completely fed up with Boston. We finally reached the point where it was like, if we don’t get out soon, we’re going to die of being here. We went and looked at marginal apartments in Manhattan, a bunch of grim places that we still couldn’t afford, in Hell’s Kitchen and under the 59th Street Bridge, and we finally ended up settling in Jackson Heights. By that point, a young agent, Susan Golomb, had managed to read all three manuscript boxes of The Twenty-Seventh City, and I’d done some serious pruning of the book. Susan sold the book to Farrar, Straus three weeks after I moved to Queens. It was this incredible housewarming present.

Back then, I thought a teaching job was the ultimate reward for writing a good book. I thought maybe I could publish a couple of books, they wouldn’t sell, but they’d be nicely reviewed in the Times, and we’d move to some nice college town and have the nice middle-class life we’d always thought we wanted. But when I did finally do some teaching, it completely ate me up. I was spending three days a week on one class, and it just didn’t seem compatible with writing novels in the long run.

The thing that saved my life was magazine work. By 1994, I’d spent all the money I’d made on my first two novels, and I was living in a $150 room in South Philadelphia. That’s when The New Yorker took a big chance on me, on the basis of pretty much nothing but my novels, and assigned me to write a 15,000-word piece on the Chicago post office. I lucked into a good story in Chicago, and the day The New Yorker accepted it was one of the happiest of my life. After that, I knew I could survive financially, so I moved back to New York.

The best part of magazine work for me, even more than the money, was that it counteracted the loneliness that comes with writing fiction, where you get to work with an editor once every five years. Of course, it helped that I didn’t have to start out doing 500-word profiles of sitcom starlets. The lamest assignment I ever took was to write a piece for Details about buying my first suit. The deal was for $2,000 plus a free suit. I wrote the thing and got a suit from Barneys which I still wear. The real bonus, though, was that Details never ran the piece.

Over the years, I’ve tried to leave the city many times. Europe is nice, and a place like Philly makes more sense financially. But New York is still the only place where people don’t ask me, “Why are you living here?” And where I don’t ask that myself. Living in New York makes me feel safe, safe from questions, and safe professionally. I like the proximity to the industry I work in. It demystifies how contracts happen, how advances are determined, how a review gets assigned, the size of reviews, even the content. Publishing loses that inaccessible, magical quality when you live in New York. If you’re out in Oklahoma trying to figure out why X book is reviewed in the Times and yours is not, you can stir yourself up into a horrible rage or paranoia. Living here by the sausage factory, I take things a little less personally.

Tom Wolfe
A Man in Full; The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Right Stuff

I went into newspaper reporting straight out of grad school, all the time considering it a cup of coffee on the highway to the glory of writing novels. I did a paper in graduate school involving census figures that showed where writers lived, and, of course, they were overwhelmingly in New York. So I figured I had to get there. I immediately tried to get work on a newspaper in New York—knowing you need to be here to really get into the whole swim of publishing—but I struck out. So I went to work for the Springfield Union in Massachusetts and then the Washington Post, still obsessed with the idea of writing novels. Then, when I finally got a job at the New York Herald Tribune, I found I was terrifically impressed by what Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese were doing. Right then, I forgot all about fiction. Their form of journalism was so much more experimental and alive than anything novelists were doing. Newspaper and magazine work gives you little glimpses of glory all the time—the world doesn’t really notice anything you’re doing, but you see your name in print and think you’re very important. When I started doing magazine work for New York and Esquire, I was making a living, but nothing extraordinary. In the early days, I still needed my work as a newspaper reporter and freelancer for magazines, no matter how many books I turned out. It wasn’t until I published The Right Stuff in 1979 that I had a real financial cushion—and I had to publish three books of nonfiction just to support the writing of that one. I was about to start work on a nonfiction novel about New York when I thought about fiction again—for the first time in 25 years. I was 57 when The Bonfire of the Vanities was published. In this day and age, I’ve become convinced that we’ve got to put the American novel on life support. It’s nonfiction that really matters today in the literary sense. Still, like most writers, I like to think my last thing was my best, and that was a novel.

Jennifer Egan
Look at Me; The Invisible Circus

After graduating from college, I spent two years in England on a scholarship. The whole time I had an inexplicable yen to be in New York and found myself washed up here toting a horrible manuscript that I thought was great—the last time I ever thought that about anything I’ve written. This was the fall of 1987, when McInerney, Ellis, and Tama Janowitz were stars, and I fully assumed I’d be one of these people. Unfortunately, no one liked my novel, and I took a string of dull temp jobs, sneaking floppy discs to the office and writing when the boss wasn’t around. Also, I worked for a bit reading the slush pile at The Paris Review—a thrill because I got to go to the parties. I was so close—except whenever someone asked what I did and I said, “I’m working as a temp and trying to write,” they’d lunge for the hors d’oeuvre table. My big break—if you want to call it that—was a job I got as a personal secretary for the countess of Romanones, who was famous for writing The Spy Wore Red, about her experiences as a glamorous spy during World War II. She was a grueling, punishing boss—I remember her complaining that I reeked of garlic and still get a childish joy when eating something garlicky—but the hours gave me time to write in the mornings. I sold two stories, one to a tiny literary magazine, the other to The New Yorker, which ended up being my first published piece. After two years, I left the countess and scraped by with an NEA grant, writing for Cosmo, under a pseudonym, things like that. In 1992, I hit another bad low. I had an agent at that point, had finished my novel, and when I sat down and read it, I thought, This is terrible! I was pushing 30 and thinking, Oh, my God. What am I going to do? I stumbled into a job at the Tribeca Film Center and eventually understood that the book just needed work and sold it in 1993. That’s when I felt, to a degree, that I was “in the game.” But don’t get me wrong. I still feel like I’m just bumbling along. For example, I need to sell a novel by next year and have no idea what I’ll do if I don’t.

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